I wrote this essay a couple of years ago after attending a rather dispiriting writing workshop, which was led by agents who pretty much insisted that if you aren’t doing what everyone else is doing, you will never get published. Each of the rules below were ones I heard at this conference. I’m republishing it now inspired by this weekend’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference, a lovely, supportive environment wholly at odds with that other one. This piece was originally published on the Write for Kids blog.
I once heard a writer of adult literature read an essay she’d written about how Checkhov proved all truisms about what makes a well-written story wrong. But writers of children’s literature don’t have to go literary to get examples of their own. Here are five rules of writing I learned in children’s writers workshops, and what a quick rereading of the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone says about such advice.
1) Kids’ books should never start with adults, a.k.a. “kill the mother.”
True, Harry doesn’t have a mother. But the first book immortalizing this character starts with the Dursleys, who aren’t even major characters. Their names are apparently Mr. and Mrs. Their son is “small”—definitely not a middle grade fiction reader. As we move forward with the confusing narrative, we meet elderly wizards sitting on a wall. This goes on for seventeen pages. The wizards talk about a baby. A giant arrives (OK, this sounds exciting, except he), bursts into tears, and needs to use an enormous hanky.
2) Kids’ books need to introduce the central tension immediately, without any confusion about “what this book is about.”
Yes, we do find out that Harry has been orphaned and he is going to live with “Muggles,” whatever they are. But we don’t get a whiff of the central tension of this book, or the series, anywhere near the first pages of this book. The Dursleys, who open the book, are always bit players, the tragi-comic relief of the series. You-Know-Who is mentioned but is apparently dead. And Harry himself, the boy who lived, literally sleeps through the scene. Judging from the opening, what the Harry Potter character “wants” is a good night’s sleep!
3) Kids’ books need to stick with a kid’s point of view.
Students, take note: Kids don’t want to read about what grown-ups are thinking and feeling. Never, ever write about a grown-up’s perspective or a grown-up’s concern. This line from Harry Potter must be a fluke: “It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day…”.
4) Never start with generalized background descriptions of our characters.
I need only quote the second paragraph of Harry Potter: “Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
I could stop there (it’s pretty self-evident), but I must channel now the voices of JK Rowling’s writers’ group, who all learned what children like when they took writing classes as adults. “Now, Jo, you’ve got to cut all that Dursley nonsense. All those details can come up when they’re necessary. No kid is going to get past that first page with an expository paragraph like that!”
5) Children get impatient with long descriptions—keep it to a few words.
I can’t do better than Rowling, who stakes her £560 million on the belief that children do love a delicious description: “Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.”
So what does it tell us that the biggest selling children’s series in history breaks every one of the “unbreakable” rules offered in children’s writing workshops? I think it tells us a few things:
First, it tells us that great writing makes its own rules. I’m sure that if Rowling had followed all of the above advice, one of the twelve big publishing houses that rejected the book would have published it. And I’m equally sure that there would now be no Harry Potter mania of the sort we’ve seen. It would have been a fine book, as dismissible as the other fine but dismissible books that publishers feel safe publishing.
Second, it tells us that writers who want to rise above the din need to stay true to themselves. If the story that speaks to you is about wizards, it just can’t matter that the publishing industry says (as they did before HP) that kids are over wizards and are looking for dystopian romance or some such. A fine writer can crank out fine books that sell well by catering to the market. A writer who wants to do more must follow her muse, which may be whispering a long paragraph full of flowery adjectives in her ear.
Finally, the success of Harry Potter tells us that the publishing industry is too quick to elevate practical advice to received wisdom. Every piece of advice quoted above is good advice in many cases, but that doesn’t mean that it’s law. Of course, good writers work on their craft, and they try out advice to see if it improves their writing. But good writers, unlike mediocre writers, are not beholden to the rules.
As Harry Potter himself might say, when what you know to be true is at stake, there’s no point in following rules just to stay safe.